Thursday, November 19, 2009

Recycled: Statement of Purpose, Part 2

Grad school is kicking my butt. So in an effort to keep this blog semi-active over the next few months, until I at least get my legs underneath me to start generating new content, I'll be recycling many of my old posts about the MFA application process. This information is a year old, but I think still very relevant for the upcoming 2009 application season.

So here it is, the Statement of Purpose, technically the most important piece of your application not called the manuscript. But it's also important to keep perspective. Your writing submission will by far be the most important part of your application, period. Everything else, even the Statement of Purpose, will be secondary, the thing that people read after they've decided they like your writing, which means you have a foot in the door to begin with. So keep that in mind. Your Statement of Purpose is a first impression, a way to tell people that you're not crazy, that you're a hard worker. With that, here's the Statement of Purpose I used for my Fall 2008 MFA applications:

My primary goals for pursuing an MFA degree are to significantly improve my writing and to become an integral part of a vibrant, close-knit writing community. To me, both of these goals are intertwined. It is difficult to improve as a writer without the feedback of peers, and similarly, one cannot be a successful member of a writing community without the rigorous application to craft. As such, I have been fortunate to be a part of the same close writing group for the past two years. Through my group’s honest and careful feedback, my writing has vastly improved, and as a result, I have had two of my short stories published: in the Concho River Review, Fall 2007 Issue, and in the Potomac Review, Fall 2008 Issue. I know that without their support, I would not be anywhere near the writer I am today.

By the same token, I understand I still have a great deal to learn. There are many aspects of craft that continue to elude me. For example, I would like to know how to effectively utilize an unreliable narrator, or how to transition from a third-person limited point of view to an omniscient point of view within a single scene. These techniques can only be improved through instruction, careful study, and access to knowledgeable professors. In essence, the intense academic environment provided by the University of Illinois’ MFA program is something that cannot be replicated. I would relish the opportunity to work with and be critiqued by fellow students and professors in such a setting.

In addition to writing, I have various professional and personal strengths to offer to the University of Illinois’ MFA program. Currently, I work as an editor in the newswire industry. In my three years in this position, I have not only been promoted from Associate to Senior Editor, but have also gained extensive experience in the areas of copy editing, professional writing, and documentation writing. Additionally, spending time in a professional environment has taught me the discipline necessary to complete large and small projects on a daily basis. I am more than confident that my real world experience has equipped me with the skills and habits needed to be a successful member of an MFA program.

I am interested in the University of Illinois’ MFA program because of its blend of writing workshops, literature classes, and elective courses on publishing, professional writing, and teaching. The emphasis on a practical range of topics related to creative writing is something that I value highly in a program. I also appreciate the three-year program the University of Illinois provides for its students. While I would savor any chance to study writing at an elite MFA program, a third year would provide more time to research and complete a full manuscript. Additionally, I believe I have much to offer to the University of Illinois. My years of professional experience in copy editing, combined with my personal experience as a contributing member of a close-knit writing community, provides me with a great understanding of what it takes to be a part of a successful program.

Obviously, this SOP varied from school to school. I didn't alter it too much, but I did apply some liberal editing to the last paragraph based on the school, and details specific to each school. I personally think my SOP is a bit wooden, and definitely on the professional side. But then, much of my formal writing experience is steeped in professional and business writing, and I'd be lying if I said that this style wasn't comfortable for me for the Statement of Purpose. Should everyone utilize this voice? Of course not. Being natural in voice and style is important; like writing stories, people can tell when you're faking it.

I should probably include another paragraph of text. Below is a snippet that I placed in some of my SOPs (usually appearing after the second paragraph of the above Statement of Purpose) to the schools that would allow over 500 words:

In regards to my writing, I am interested in exploring the issues of community and culture as it relates to the children of immigrants -- first generation immigrants -- in the United States. I was born and raised in the mostly Caucasian, middle class suburbs of Chicago, yet grew up in a primarily Chinese household. Like my parents, I was not only a minority in name and appearance, but also in culture and community. Most of our family friends were Chinese, I attended Chinese school every Sunday for five years, and we spent entire summers visiting family in Hong Kong. Yet, unlike my parents, being an American was also a far larger part of my identity than it was to them. First generation immigrants are embedded in both cultures, and often, embracing one comes at the expense of the other. To a child or a teenager, this dichotomy is made more complex with issues of identity as it pertains to adolescence and becoming an adult. I want my writing to occupy this space of tension, where to a child, their culture, community, and identity are multi-faceted, complex issues.

A dash of personal background and writing interest. Did it help? To be honest, probably not. It certainly didn't hurt, though. Of all the schools that either waitlisted or accepted me, two (Western Michigan University and Roosevelt) received the "personal" version, and two (the University of Illinois and Notre Dame) received the "vanilla" version. Purdue's case was special, as they asked for an additional written statement answering the questions: "Whose work do you admire? What collection of poetry and/or works of fiction read in the last year have been important to you, and why?" It was fairly simple for me to fold in that one paragraph with some immigrant fiction I had been reading and which were important to me.

In general, I think this is an interesting point, because I had readers who, in general, liked the additional paragraph in my SOP. It gave it a "personal" touch. I, however, was rather ambivalent about the extra paragraph. It felt a little out of place in terms of tone and content. And if a school has even gotten to your SOP, it stands to reason that they've already read and loved your manuscript, and are simply making sure you are a fairly driven, yet normal individual. You hear it over and over again: the manuscript comes first. Which is the reason why, given everything -- the dozens of drafts and the dozens of hours I spent on my SOP -- the Statement of Purpose seems to me both less important and as important as you think. It's fairly important that you try to convey an honest and interesting portrayal of yourself in the SOP. For me, this was utilizing a businesslike approach. Yet, at the same time, there's probably a fairly easy watermark to pass, kind of like a "you must be this sane to ride" type of deal.

But I don't want to dismiss the inherent value in the personal details expressed in the Statement of Purpose. When I first met the Director of the University of Illinois' program, the first few questions she asked me were related to the information and details in my SOP. I was struck by that. In a way, it was her first impression of me as a person, which is something you can never take too lightly.


Research Writer said...
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SJDuvall said...

Did you ever write a teaching statement of purpose? I'm keeping mine separate from my regular statement since only two schools want to see it, but I was curious what a good teaching statement would look like.

Eric said...

Hi SJDuvall, I did have to write a teaching statement last year. Email me, and I'd be more than happy to shoot mine over.

mfawriterguy said...

Just found your blog, and also just started one with a similar slant, although my objective is a day-to-day blow-by-blow of how it's going. I will definitely follow your blog. Best of luck!

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